Saturday, October 21, 2006


The Art and Folly of the Video Game Review

October's been a pretty good month for Electric Dilintia so far. I've written a number of pieces that I've wanted to do for quite some time, and if I say so myself, they turned out to be reasonably entertaining and substantive. My review of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is probably the best video game review I've ever written, and I'm unusually pleased with it.

So you would think, as much as I seem to love writing about video games -- being completely incapable of suppressing my enthusiasm and opinionated musings about the subject -- that I would have enjoyed being a reviewer for Nintendojo a lot more than I did.

Thing is, the more you worry about video game reviews, the more you come to realize that the entire exercise of playing a video game and reporting your experiences to potential consumers is a giant headfuck.

The Fallacy of Objectivity

The first problem with video game reviews is that there's an expectation of objectivity. The goal of a video game reviewer is not to present his opinion of a video game but to try and guess how well it meets the expectations of the website's (or magazine's) audience. So right off the bat we have a problem -- the writer is expected to create an opinion piece where he must disregard his own opinion in favor of some mythical common denominator, a one-size-fits-all yardstick that's supposed to measure how well the entire gaming community will receive a particular game.

For example, there was much bruhaha in the Nintendo fanboy clique when Game Informer rendered a sub-average review upon Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Their argument for the poor score was that, even though the game was high-quality fun, they had to base their score on how the gaming community would enjoy it. This mysterious chimera apparently thinks very poorly of anything with cartoon characters in it, so they docked the score accordingly. Never mind that this was easily the darkest adventure Super Mario has ever embarked upon, Paper or not. Cartoony = childish = bad.

My personal experience with this attitude came when I submitted my very first review to Nintendojo. I gave Game & Watch Gallery 4 a perfect 10. It was the biggest and best game in the series, and it stole away hours upon hours of my gaming time. It was the first Game Boy Advance game to really break me away from my Game Boy Color. The chief editor sent me an e-mail questioning my score. Did I really think a Game & Watch collection was worth a 10? Well of course I did. But in the end, he talked me down to a 9.5.

No one batted an eye when I gave Advance Wars 2 a 10.

In a perfect world, we would have a wide range of sources for video game reviews. The internet is capable of creating hundreds of wildly conflicting opinions over video games, a voice for everyone who considers themselves a gamer, no matter how close to or far from the mainstream their opinion lies. Instead, everyone strives to be the single, objective voice of the gaming community, your one-stop location for video game opinions.

Video games are an interactive medium. They have the potential to create a different experience for everyone who touches them. Why, then, do video game reviews often sound so much the same? Why do reviewers all linger on the same details?

Artifice and Deadlines

Another problem with video game reviews -- at least as they appear in most websites and magazines -- is how artificial the circumstances of play have to be. Many of the big websites get their games for free. Reviewers are sometimes paired up with games from series or genres that they're unfamiliar with or which hold no immediate appeal to them. They have a limited amount of time to play and report their experiences. This time isn't spent playing so much as analyzing. Are my readers going to be pleased with these graphics? Is this too easy or too difficult? How does this compare to other games in the same genre? And, of course, there's the race to unlock as much of the content as quickly as possible, the better to report on its quality.

This isn't (or shouldn't be) indicative of how an actual player approaches a game. A player approaches a game because the concept seems interesting. He invests hard-earned (or hard-negotiated) money into the game, which automatically increases its perceived value. (Those games that I had to save months' worth of allowance for when I was little were always much sweeter than the ones I plunk down a fraction of a week's paycheck for today.) And unless they're anal-retentive twits, chances are they aren't going to be analyzing it for quality of craftsmanship so much as playing it. And they'll be doing so at their leisure, as the whim takes them, with no obligation to finish it within a time limit.

This is why I tend to look to "reader reviews" more than the official website reviews. What they lack in journalistic quality, they often make up for with sincere and interesting opinions that could only come from people who chose the game themselves and understand what they're talking about.

Eroding Opinions

Opinions change. Super Mario Sunshine received glowing reviews upon its debut, but it sank in the hearts and minds of many in the years following. My initial impressions of Pokemon Trading Card Game for Game Boy Color were underwhelming. But when I discovered the joy of strategic deck building, I couldn't get enough of replaying the in-game opponents and proceeded to rack up dozens and dozens of hours of play.

So when is the right time to write a video game review? Do you strike after the initial impressions, the better to capture the feeling the reader will get the first time he plays? Or do you prolong it to gauge the lasting appeal? How long should you wait? A month? A year? When can you be certain that a game is a classic or a dud?

I made Electric Dilintia partly so that I could have an outlet for video game reviews without having to worry about annoying details like people reading them. And still, even as I write reviews entirely for my own amusement, I have a hard time telling how long I should go before I write about a game. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon was a rare case -- most of the time, I find myself in a kind of wishy-washy middle ground, unsure if I'm still basking in the initial glow of a video game or if my opinions have sufficiently ripened to the point where I'm ready to commit them to permanent marker on the old 'blog. Just look how I ended my review of New Super Mario Brothers: "I'm still not sure if this game is going to go down as a classic or if it's just going to be remembered as a summertime diversion." I actually care that much about video game reviews that I'm not going to risk calling a game a classic when there's any sort of chance that my mind may change later.

(For the record, it was pretty much a summertime diversion.)

The Crap We Love, The Gold We Hate

Sometimes, the highest quality of production values in the world aren't enough to make me love a game. And sometimes, I'll love a game no matter how crappy it is.

I gave Sitting Ducks for Game Boy Advance a 3 out of 10. The production values were awful. The gameplay was crap. Everything about the game was a joke. I completely recognize that the thing was a cheap cash-in and a disappointment in every way.

Advance Wars 2, on the other hand, was a small masterpiece, a turn-based strategy game that gave you nothing but things to do and incredible gameplay.

I traded Advance Wars 2 in for some store credit at Gamestop, but I still have Sitting Ducks. Why? Because at the end of the day, I like playing a video game with ducks and aligators, but Advance Wars 2 is too similar to the first game to make me feel like I really need to own both.

That's something you will almost never see in a video game review: the intangible things that attract you to an otherwise lousy game or prevent you from completely enjoying a masterpiece. I've sold off many, many games that I recognize as technical achievements because they bored me silly -- Metroid games, Zelda games, Final Fantasies -- yet held onto crappy games just because they make me smile -- Pokemon Channel, Mario Party Advance, Jurassic Park 2 for Game Boy, and so on.

Some games have no reason to exist, but I love them anyway.

Why Are We Still Rating Graphics and Sound?

At least most game reviewers are polite enough to give us headings that allow us to skim past crap like this, but it still annoys me how much attention people give to graphics and sound in video games. I mean, if they're especially cool, fine, you can give them a mention, but these days about the only thing that really makes one game look different from another is a conscious decision about visual style, and it's not like there are all that many games where the developers dare to be different; we don't need to hear about how graphics look for every single damned game on a system.

I guess I've always found discussion of aesthetics to be boring. To me, it's analogous to reading an autobiography of Abraham Lincoln that begins by detailing what he had for breakfast every day of his life. I'm sure that having breakfast was an important part of who he was, but it's not really the part I'm interested in.

What Makes a Good Video Game Review

So what do I want to see in video game reviews?

It's a tough question. Ideally, every game reviewer would have so much passion for every game they reviewed that you could feel their sense of wonder and intrigue as they guide you through every nuance of gameplay, weighing the advantages and disadvantages and drawing comparisons to similar games to help the player decide, based on previous experiences, if this new experience is desirable. These reviews would be rich in personal opinions and experiences, the better to help the player judge how well the reviewer's experiences match his own.

But sometimes, all you really want is what the premise is, how the combat system works, or whether or not this version of Monopoly or Pac-Man supports a save file.

Clearly there's a place for video game reviews as they exist right now. Even if reviewers continue to pile praise on games I hate and chop down games I love, I'm getting good enough at reading between the lines to make my own decisions. And maybe that's the way it should be.


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